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8 trends in mobile devices

8 trends in mobile devices

Think you and your family are major multigadgeters now? The mobile wave is still cresting: More than 240 million smart phones and tablets will be sold in the U.S. this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Add in millions more cameras and other handheld devices, and America is on track in 2013 to acquire a new gadget for roughly every man, woman, and child over the age of 12.

Here are eight trends that cut across multiple categories. We’ll let you know exactly what each means for you and the mobile devices you’ll be buying.

More new phones, and even some tablets, can shoot pretty decent photos, giving stand-alone cameras serious competition. At the same time, some cameras are taking on phone-like characteristics, such as photo sharing through wireless connectivity and built-in photo editing.

Phones

Despite their tinier lenses and image sensors, the best new smart-phone cameras can capture images as good as those from highly ranked basic cameras, but only under optimal conditions. Eight-to-12-megapixel resolution, enough for most kinds of photos, is now common (the LG Optimus G Pro, shown, has a 13-megapixel camera), and most phones shoot HD video in 720p or 1080p. But only a few have very good video quality.

You can easily share photos from any smart phone, and top-of-the line models can enhance photos in ways few cameras can, such as assembling a group shot using the best face of each subject from a series of shots.

Tablets

Their cameras aren’t as advanced as those on phones, though some (including the latest iPads and Galaxy Note tablets) offer flash, panorama modes, and rudimentary manual exposure settings. And more than two-thirds of our recommended tablets have a rear camera with 5 to 8 megapixels of resolution, up from a norm of 3 to 5 megapixels just a year ago.

Cameras

Stand-alone cameras are getting more connected, with features such as built-in Wi-Fi (and even 4G access on the Samsung Galaxy camera) for phone-like sharing of images. A few have an Android-based operating system that lets you download apps from Google Play. The Panasonic Lumix DMC TS5 (above right) connects via NFC (near-field communication), which lets you quickly upload images and video to your NFC-enabled smart phone.

More cameras also have built-in editing features, though not yet as sophisticated as those in some phones. But cameras are still the best choice for shooting in low light, thanks in part to their larger image sensors.

Cameras’ optical zoom—even 3x on a basic camera— is much more effective than the digital zoom used on tablets and almost all current phones, which yields images so flawed that you’re better off enlarging and cropping them after the fact. The optical or mechanical image stabilization on many advanced cameras reduces blur caused by camera shake.

Bottom line

The best phone cameras take better images than their predecessors, fine for casual use such as posting to Facebook. But a dedicated camera is still a must if you want top quality and maximum flexibility.

You love e-books and digital magazines, but you might be tempted to read that summer sizzler or special grilling issue on your tablet or phone rather than on an e-book reader. With e-reading, like most other mobile activities, migrating to tablets and phones, you may see less need for a dedicated e-book reader such as the Barnes & Noble Nook or Amazon Kindle.

And you’d be right. Improved LCD screens on tablets and phones display sharper type, and their color screens suit e-magazines. New slimmer and lighter tablets are easier to hold for reading. And Nook and Kindle e-reading apps sync across platforms, so you can resume reading on a phone where you stopped on your tablet.

So why consider an e-book reader? Because the best are lighter and cheaper by half than even a small, light tablet. They’re also much better for reading in bright light (say, at the beach), and they run for weeks—in some cases even months—on a charge.

If you already own an e-book reader, it should still meet your needs; the newest models have few innovations. If you’re a serious digital-book reader, consider buying one, even if you already own a tablet.

Manufacturers are packing more pixels into each square inch of phone and tablet displays. The result is sharper type and better-looking images, including videos that meet the 1080p resolution spec of “full HD” television screens.

Most of the newest phones and tablets also have wider (16:9) displays that better suit video viewing, e-mail, and many apps. The iPad is one of the few tablets with a squarish (4:3) shape.

The trend toward less-square 16:9 displays is helping phones fit more easily into palms and pockets even as their displays grow in size. About a dozen models in our Ratings have screens 4.5 inches or larger, compared with only two last year. Yet, with their differing proportions, these big-screen models are little if any wider than their predecessors.

Another slimming factor in some big phones, including models from HTC, LG, Motorola, and Samsung, is a display that runs nearly all the way to the edge of the device. That design minimizes the outer area of glass that widens the phone but isn’t usable.

iPhones and iPads are the way to go for the most, and most varied, apps. In a recent survey of 8,119 ConsumerReports.org subscribers by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 71 percent of iPhone users and two-thirds of iPad owners rated the selection of apps for their devices as excellent. That compares with four in 10 Android phone or tablet users, one in five owners of Amazon tablets such as the Kindle Fire, and fewer than one in 10 BlackBerry or Windows phone users.

When we looked for a few dozen popular apps (such as Instagram, Groupon, and Spotify), Google Play had almost all of them, and most were available from Amazon. Selection was spottier for Windows and BlackBerry.

Though Google Play and even Amazon’s Appstore carry most major apps, Apple usually has them first. It also offers many titles that never make it to other platforms. And if you’re looking for the most innovative apps, you still can’t beat Apple.

Apple all but invented the smart phone and tablet, at least in their current incarnations. And iPhones and iPads remain high performers in our Ratings and by far the most-owned brands of mobile devices among Consumer Reports readers.

But more phones and tablets than ever are matching or beating Apple’s models in our Ratings. Among the most dominant alternatives to Apple devices: a slew of superb phones and tablets from Samsung. The distinctions of the newest Samsungs include innovations that cut across phones and tablets, such as the S Pen stylus and its apps, found on the Galaxy Note phones and tablets.

The Android platform currently offers the greatest diversity of hardware, including phones with bigger displays than Apple’s and the ability to expand storage with a memory card or USB stick, which you can’t do with an iPhone or iPad. Even recommended phones that use the new Windows Mobile and revamped BlackBerry platforms show the kind of innovation that was once Apple’s hallmark.

Still, Apple retains unique strengths, including its elegant iOS operating system, largely unchanged for a few years and familiar to many. (The new, significantly different iOS 7 is expected this fall.) But the availability of compelling designs on other platforms might tempt Apple fans to consider other options.

When it comes to gadgets, familiarity can be reassuring. One in five of the tablet owners we surveyed said they bought the model they have because it uses the same operating system (or “platform”) as gear they own. Most of those respondents were “Apple people” who wanted an iPad, most likely because it uses Apple’s simple interface and could easily share their existing content.

But adding a new OS to the mix, or even switching entirely, isn’t as daunting as you might fear. Today’s operating systems are quite intuitive and easy to learn, and chances are you can easily transfer much of your content.

Given that Apple has dominated sales of both phones and tablets, most users who are switching platforms, or mixing them within the home, are likely to be moving from iOS, so we’ve geared our advice in that direction.

Music

With the exception of some older (DRM-protected) iTunes purchases, music ripped or downloaded from the iTunes store in MP3 or Apple’s favored AAC formats and played on an iPhone or iPad can be transferred to a new non-Apple device attached to your computer via USB. You drag and drop it to the device from the music folder on your computer.

If you use a Windows PC, you can, for more flexibility, switch your computer’s music app from iTunes to Google Music Manager for Android. However, if you’re switching from Apple to another platform, you won’t be able to use iTunes on the device itself; the app is available only for iOS. Instead, use the music manager that’s pre-installed on the other device.

E-books

If you’re reading e-books from either Barnes & Noble or Amazon on one platform, just download the app for the new one to read those titles. (No such luck with Kindle or Nook e-book readers, though. Each accepts books only from its own platform.)

Movies

Hollywood movies have so much copy protection that a title you bought on iTunes for an iOS device won’t play on an Android device. Likewise, movies purchased on Google Play or Amazon for an Android device won’t play on an Apple gadget.

Apps

Games and some other apps bought for one platform won’t transfer to another, so you’ll have to rebuy them. But our readers used mostly free apps. You’ll have to download them again, but they won’t cost anything.

Virtually all of the most popular account-based apps (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, e-mail, and messaging) are available free on all platforms. Data and account preferences are stored remotely, so they’ll be the same no matter what device you’re using. But features may differ by platform.

Content stored on Apple’s iCloud can’t be accessed on mobile platforms other than iOS. You can pull the content down to a computer, though, and upload it to a platform-neutral service such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft SkyDrive.

Bottom line

Becoming a multiplatform household might be easier than you think.

Looking for a smart phone or tablet with speakers that do a decent job with music and video soundtracks? Several new models are billed as offering enhanced sound quality, but they’re not as good as the ads might lead you to believe.

Phones

We listened to two smart phones touted for their audio prowess—the HTC One and Pantech Discover—both of which have dual speakers providing stereo sound. We compared them with a few widely owned models, including the Apple iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S 4. The HTC One sounded better, but the Pantech Discover was unremarkable.

Tablets

The Barnes & Noble Nook HD+, advertised as having superior sound, did sound better than the iPad Mini, 8- and 10-inch Samsung Galaxy Note, and 10-inch Google Nexus. But so did the 10-inch Apple iPad, which makes no claim of better sound. Like the Nook HD+, the iPad has a rear-facing mono speaker.

Bottom line

“Better” is relative. Even the three phones and tablets that stood out didn’t sound as loud or as rich as even a low-cost speaker such as the small Satechi BT Wireless speaker we tested ($40). That speaker can’t compare with the pricier TDK Life on Record wireless speaker ($150). For solo listening, any decent headphones would sound better than phone or tablet speakers. Check our buying guide and Ratings for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth speakers and headphones.

With more people using smart phones and tablets, and using them in more ways, manufacturers are tweaking batteries, circuitry, software, and more to maximize run time. Our tests confirm that they’re succeeding.

A few years ago, consumers carped about battery indicators turning red before the workday was done. While it’s still easy to drain a phone or tablet battery in a few hours if you engage in energy-hogging pursuits such as streaming video or serious gaming, the newest generation of phones all run much longer than their predecessors.

So do new tablets from Apple, Samsung, and others. In our 2011 tests, 7- and 8-inch tablets had 7 or 8 hours’ worth of juice. Better models of that size now run 10 to 11 hours, and larger ones as long as 13 hours.

If you’re among the one-third or so of readers who bought a tablet or phone two or more years ago, battery life alone could be reason to upgrade.

Which mobile devices do you need right now? Read “8 essential summer gadgets” to find out.

Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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